The Microphones Are Always On

Just before a weekly radio address in 1984, President Ronald Reagan cracked a joke.

“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Those comments might have stayed in the room if the microphone hadn’t been live and the tape hadn’t leaked. Instead, Reagan’s offhand remarks made their way into global broadcast and print media, causing an international stir and outrage in the Soviet Union.

Today, there are still plenty of “hot mic” moments for those whose lapses in judgment come back to haunt them. The difference between now and 1984 is that you no longer need a reporter in the room or a sneaky sound technician at the controls to have one.

In 2006, Michael Richards (Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld), launched into a racist tirade during a comedy act. An audience member captured the moment in a cellphone video that nearly ended Richards’ career.

Last month, a bystander used his mobile phone to record University of Maryland Medical Center security staff dumping a patient on the street because she couldn’t pay her bill. A Google news search for “Maryland Medical Center” results in at least 20 items referring to this incident, all at the top of the list. The results include a story about a new state investigation of the hospital.

Social media present their own spin on the hot mic moment. In August, West Valley Tires in Buckeye, Arizona, fired James Cobo for his Facebook post threatening to drive his 4X4 through political protesters in Phoenix. Cobo may have found it harder to land another job after that. CareerBuilder reports that more than 70 percent of employers now scour social media to screen applicants.

In other words, microphones, cellphones, emails and online comment forums are everywhere, and they all drain into the big funnel called media.

Knowing how news organizations work, what reporters want and how to put your best foot forward during traditional interviews is still crucial knowledge. But we also need to know how to manage reputation in a freewheeling online universe, where the potential for damage is immense and anyone with a social media feed is, in essence, a reporter.

As leaders, we need to understand where the quicksand is, how to recover from missteps and how to respond to negative rumblings that can quickly become tsunamis.

We need to remember that we can “be the media” too, taking advantage of social platforms and our own communication channels to reach important influencers and stakeholders.

Most of all, we need to rethink media, media training and an environment in which communication is never private and never goes away. The microphones – and the cameras – are always on.